However, as often happens in the libertarian movement, the topic seems to have come up again, and there is a new angle on this topic to address. And because Thoughts on Liberty‘s mission is to promote and bring in women to liberty, I want to be sure to cover Pamela J. Stubbart’s recent post at libertarianism.org titled “Why Aren’t More Women Libertarians?” While I think Pam’s commentary is some of the better stuff I have seen on this topic in a while, there are still some gaps in her thinking that should be addressed.
The Shaky Science and Interpretation of Gender Differences
In her essay, Pam says that “Also, on the sociological side, we should take seriously the reasonably well-substantiated empirical claim of evolutionary psychology that men have evolved to bear traits that go to further extremes than women.” She explains this by saying that men have had to “diversify their strategies in appealing to women” by adopting further extremes. Thus, she says, if a view is unpopular, we should expect to see more men adopting that idea.
There are several things wrong with her interpretation here. First, the link that Pam provides doesn’t substantiate what she’s actually saying. The link is to an EconLog podcast featuring Roy Baumeister, author of Is There Anything Good About Men?. In it, when discussing extremes, he seems to be talking about extremes of things we see as genetic (like IQ), not necessarily behavior1:
It turned out there are more males at both extremes of the IQ distribution. Males are just more genetically variable. So he was on very solid scientific ground. I think people took it that he was implying that men were smarter than women on the whole. But on that, if not what he was saying, the average could be precisely the same. If you have more men at both extremes, then you will have more men at the high end; and that seems to be what just about every large-scale study shows. When you look at distributions of intelligence, it seems to be one of the themes of the book–men go to extremes much more than women, probably for biological as well as social reasons.
Additionally, Baumeister acknowledges that there is likely both a genetic and a social component to the greater diversity of things like IQ (and that a greater variance exists is relatively well-subsantaited). But why such a variance exists can just as much be cultural as innate. Indeed, different cultures get different disparities in male vs. female traits (at least in terms of math).
Second, Pam writes as if the evolutionary process is under some sort of conscious process on the part of individuals (“because in the past women have more reliably reproduced than men, men have had to diversify their strategies in appealing to women, both by deliberate choices and in effect by displaying a wider variety of traits.” – parentheticals omitted) and as if sexes evolve separately from one another. Perhaps this is a rhetorical mistake on her part (and lord knows I have made them myself), but if not, this shows a disturbing lack of understanding of how the evolutionary process works and how, if at all, that process affects individual psychology or sociology of gender.
That being said, I do not think that there are no sociological reasons why women don’t naturally gravitate towards libertarianism. Pam is right to point out that men are much less risk averse than women, generally2. That may influence their decision to self-identify as libertarians or speak out as a libertarian, because to do so does carry some risk of social exclusion (can I get an amen?). Additionally, libertarian worlds, particularly those that do not address pervasive sexism, racism, classism, etc., tend to look much risker to women than they do to men. So it would be natural, then, for women to be gun shy about a philosophy that seems, on the surface, to want to make the world riskier for her.
But those are both surmountable tasks for libertarians, if we care enough to fix our internal problems.
The Ideological Basis for Fewer Women Libs
Pam then goes on to say that libertarians must confront potential genuine ideological conflicts between them and women. This is, of course, true, but there is a also gap here that she has not filled as well. Pam says that “Intellectually honest libertarians ought to admit that the substance of libertarianism – i.e., its positions on welfare, drugs, education, reproductive rights, and etc. – does not in fact appeal to women as much as much as it appeals to men.”
I absolutely agree with her that we ought to consider that possibility—but in order to do so, we must also address the question of why that discrepancy might be. Lots of libertarians do, but often not in a very meaningful way. Women wanting to “suck the teat of the state” and women “not being able to understand economics” being some of the more prevalent and pernicious of these.
But instead of attempting to meaningfully address this question, Pam goes into an (admittedly well written and lovely) rhetorical turnabout that mentions some common issues that women would genuinely disagree with libertarians on. (“Some women really do…”). And, I agree, some women really do hold those positions, have genuine, logical reasons for holding them, and could probably kick a libertarian’s ass in debate simply because we come from two different sets of values and axioms from which we derive our philosophies (see also: Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind).
But here’s the thing: the exact same thing is true for men. Some men really do endorse the idea of a social safety net. Some men really do oppose reproductive freedom on philosophical grounds. Some men really do “want the stability and ease of sending their children to a decent, chosen-for-them public school, rather than navigating the intricacies of a freer market in education.” My father certainly did.
If it weren’t the case that people didn’t have genuine philosophical differences with libertarians, then everyone would be libertarian! The question is why women in particular are averse to libertarianism. If it were just a case of ideological differences, then we’d see similar gender breakdown as other political ideologies. But we don’t. There has to be more than just ideas working here.
Again, that is not to say that ideology doesn’t contribute, in part, to it. Libertarianism looks very cold and harsh for particularly empathetic and compassionate people, which women tend to be socialized to be. Additionally, libertarianism, being a relatively obscure political orientation, tends to draw people more heavily from particular academic fields than other political philosophies. Economics, philosophy, and political science being chief of these—and the male to female ratio isn’t stellar for those fields, either.
But libertarians can overcome these obstacles, if they want to.
Libertarians’ Treatment of Women Does Matter
I have saved Pam’s first point for last because it is likely the one I disagree with most. I have gone on record saying over and over again that libertarians are not good to women, in general, and this contributes a great deal to why women don’t join our ranks. There is a good bit of blatant sexism, and libertarians, in general, are not good at addressing issues that concern women. As a whole, libertarian circles3 are not friendly to women, and if we want more women in liberty, it’s something we need to change.
If I am reading her correctly, Pam does not think that the libertarian gender gap is caused by libertarians themselves for two reasons. First, that libertarian, male-dominated spaces are unfriendly to women is an phenomenon that is exaggerated due to availability bias. Meaning, that the scores of examples we hear about creepertarianism, libertarian audiences that are openly hostile to women, etc. are brought up because they are more salient in people’s minds and seem to be a bigger problem than they are because they stick out more prominently. Second, that the gender disparity among libertarians is only apparent at conferences and social functions, which, she says, consist of people who are already libertarians, not people who want to learn more about it.
To these, I say first that Pam neglected to mention the second part of the common feminist critique of libertarians: that they do not address “women’s issues.” This is an important oversight, because while of course women care about more than reproductive rights, sexual assault, etc., they are important to that demographic overall, and to neglect the issues is to neglect the people who care about them.
Second, I acknowledge that availability bias could contribute to the collection of anecdotes that give the impression that libertarians are sexist. However, it’s important for Pam (and others, of course) to realize that they might be subject to their own biases—or that they may not experience the kind of hostility that other women do because they tend to fall more in line with libertarian mainstream orthodoxy4. There is no need for someone to devalue, unfairly interpret, or straw man your thoughts if they agree with your general premise.
But if we’re talking about incoming people who may not be 100% on the libertarian mainstream train (as it were)—and women are less likely to be on said train for all the above discussed reasons—then what you have is an influx of people who are testing the ideological waters of libertarianism only to be met with a tidal wave of resistance. Not fair criticism but incensed rages, willful misreadings, straw men, and just plain ignorance. This of course happens to anyone who challenges the One True Libertarian Way, but the nature of that resistance has a different hue and strength depending on whether that person is a man or a woman.
I think this has the potential to scare off libertarian women who may not even have yet seen the light of day. All someone has to do is observe, or venture cautiously into a group of libertarians, to come up against this. And all that potential, curiosity, about libertarianism is gone.
That is not to say that women are more predisposed to be weak spined, unable to take criticism, or even abuse, than men are. But just to say that when you’re talking about someone coming into something new, they aren’t invested enough to put up with all the bullshit—no one is. Women got better shit to do than to be yelled at by idiots. So they just move on with their lives.
To address Pam’s second point quickly and insufficiently: conferences and libertarian gatherings probably attract more liberty enthusiasts than die-hard libertarians. And it’s just as easy to scare away an enthusiast as it is a full fledged newbie with the same hostility—because as soon as it ceases to be fun an interesting, well, people got shit to do.
I realize at this point that I have spilled quite a bit of digital ink on this post, and I need to be closing up soon. Suffice it to say that the issue of the libertarian gender gap is probably more complicated than can be conveyed in a single blog post. However, I still maintain that much of the libertarian gender gap can be fixed if we can clean up how we treat women and women’s issues.
1 I grabbed this from the podcast highlights. There may have been mention of this verbally in a point of the podcast that wasn’t highlighted.
2 It should go without saying that just because gender discrepancy among adults does not point to innate differences among genders. Additionally, though there is much to be said for risks, in general, being higher for women than they are for men, so what may appear to be risk aversion is actually normal aversion to an actual greater risk.
3 Something else that should go without saying, but I fear I must specify: I am not accusing libertarian men of being unfriendly to libertarian women. Although creepertarianism is a thing, libertarians as a whole commit much of what I discuss here.
4 Biases abound! The intellectually honest must realize that without data, Pam’s guess is as good as mine, but that will not stop either of us, nor should it, from debating the merits of our positions.